Megan McArthur said the ISS' robotic arm is "operating completely normally" after space debris caused a small hole to form

By Tom Cunneff
June 02, 2021 11:09 AM
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If you see something zipping through the sky, it may not be a bird or a plane — it just might be NASA astronaut Megan McArthur on the International Space Station, cruising at some 17,500 mph.

Dressed in chinos and a pink polo emblazoned with an Expedition 65 logo, McArthur, 49, spoke with PEOPLE exclusively about her first of six months aboard the International Space Station as it zipped along some 250 miles above Australia.

"It's an amazing thing to get to spend this much time in space and really get used to it, start to adapt to the environment and get efficient moving around and living and working in space," says McArthur, who's married to follow astronaut Bob Behnken. "It's really been incredible."

Incredible, and, at times, dangerous. After blasting off from Kennedy Space Center on April 23 on their way to the ISS, McArthur and her three crewmates had to prepare to encounter a piece of space debris, which turned out to be a false alarm.

Megan McArthur
Megan McArthur
| Credit: NASA
SpaceX Crew
Thomas Pesquet, Megan McArthur, Shane Kimbrough and Akihiko Hoshide ahead of SpaceX's Crew-2 mission on April 16, 2021
| Credit: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty

But just yesterday, NASA revealed that a piece of space debris tore a small hole through the ISS' robotic arm in February.

"The arm is operating completely normally," McArthur says. "It has done some significant tasks since it received that hit and is expected to be completely operational for all of the big tests that we have coming up."

Next to the launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket — when the crew ushered in a new era of reusable commercial spacecraft — and then docking with the ISS, the highlight for McArthur so far has been operating the Celestial Immunity project. The immune function study could contribute to developing vaccines back on Earth.

"I'm not a biologist by training, so I had a camera over my shoulder with an expert talking me through it every step of the way, and that was very exciting to be so hands-on involved in an important research project like that," she says, adding a SpaceX cargo vehicle coming up this weekend is bringing 7,000 lbs. of more science to them. "So we're excited to get that here, get it unpacked and get started with all of that. It will include a couple of spacewalks."

She speaks with Behnken, who spent two months on the ISS last summer, and 7-year-old son Theo on a daily basis by phone, and gets to video chat with them for 20 minutes once a week.

bob behnken and megan mcarthur
Megan McArthur and Bob Behnken with son Theo
| Credit: Norah Moran/NASA

"He's great," she says, when asked how Theo is handling her absence. "He and his dad are having a ton of fun. He said school was out and he's loving spending time at the swimming pool."

There's no doubt Theo would enjoy flying around the ISS like Superman — something his mom has become proficient in during her first month on board.

"It's a wonderful way to move around," she says. "I feel like I get a little bit better and a little bit more efficient every day. I'm trying different maneuvers as I take the corner at high speed or changing speeds. You want to obviously be careful not to run into anyone else or run into any of the stuff that we have, but it's fun."

When she's not flying around the ISS, perhaps her favorite way to unwind is to stare down at Earth through one of the several different windows on the ISS.

McArthur says she even once saw a rare lightning phenomenon known as blue jets, where a bright blue bolt of static electricity shoots straight up.

"We have such a beautiful planet, and really, the most overwhelming feeling is one of wonder," she says. "Every time we get a sunrise or a sunset, you see that lens of the atmosphere illuminated, and you see how thin it is relative to the size of the Earth or relative to the vast blackness of space and so you sort of feel very protective, very proprietary about this special planet that we have."